Offcuts: Wool still on the front line

SHEEP and wool remains one of Australia’s oldest traditional industries and not much has changed – amid dry seasons, many producers are once again “riding on the sheep’s back’’.

Wool has also been a synonymous thread with Australia’s fighting servicemen and women and will be on the “frontline’’ again as many prepare for upcoming ANZAC Day services and recognise 100 years since the end of World War One, although their garments today may be a little different.

Over the two World Wars, Australian wool fleeces uniformed the troops of the Empire and Commonwealth, made the blankets that covered them and also the bomb fuses in their artillery shells.

Before the outbreak of World War One in 1914, Australian woolgrowers had a near monopoly on world production and only they could supply the wool needed for clothes, uniforms and blankets.

Early in the war, wool exports were embargoed, except to Britain. Then from early 1915, Merino wool could be exported to allied countries and the United States, with prices steadily increasing.

However, in February 1916 the British government again asked Australia to stop all wool exports, except to Britain, leading to a steep fall in wool prices.

After lengthy negotiations during 1916, the British government agreed to buy Australia’s entire wool production for the remainder of the war at a price 55 per cent above the pre-war average.

The ‘Slouch’ Hat

The most distinctive article of clothing worn by the Australian soldier during the First World War was the khaki felt slouch hat – the word ‘slouch’ referring to the sloping brim.

Not only was the brim made from wool felt, but the khaki puggaree (band) the hat was normally worn with was also made from Australian wool.

The slouch hat became a famous symbol of the Australian fighting man during World War One and continued to be worn throughout World War Two. Over time, it has become an iconic symbol of Australia’s national identity and the “digger spirit”.

Australian Army Woollen Blankets

Almost as dangerous as the enemy during the two World Wars were the hellish and extreme weather conditions faced by diggers, ranging from the freezing, muddy trenches of the Western Front in World War One to the monsoonal rains and oppressive heat of the Pacific theatre in World War Two.

Offering some small measure of comfort during any brief respite from fighting were Army-issue blankets made from 100pc Australian Merino wool (with the exception of the white cotton label).

The humble army blanket had many uses during war times. Issued with two blankets, it was all a soldier had as a bed to keep warm or, without a tent, to provide shelter from the sun, rain or wind.

The Lighthorsemen used them under their standard leather saddles for extra padding and in the hospitals they were sometimes the only bedding for the wounded.

While the blankets were produced by John Vicars & Co Pty Ltd out of Sydney, Victorian towns were also instrumental in production, with women from Maryborough to Ballarat working in knitting mills churning out blankets and other woollen products for the war effort.

‘Diggers Vests’

Many of the first men to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force slept rough, warmed only by their own coats and blankets.

The cold desert winds of Egypt would chill diggers to the bone, while the European winters of World War One were reported to be the worst for over 60 years.

Men died of pneumonia or froze to death in the flooded, muddy trenches, unable to move and restore circulation as it could invite sniper or shellfire.

Hearing of this hardship back home, the Australian public responded with a practical solution of its own. An appeal was launched, with the help of the press, to provide the men of the Australian Expeditionary Forces with a tanned sheepskin waistcoat, or ‘Diggers Vest’, for warmth.

By 1916, 75,510 waist coats and 61,193 insoles had been sent to soldiers at the front.

The ‘Diggers Vest’ saved many lives of the soldiers at the front, while also giving birth to the Australian sheepskin industry, which, in time, would benefit our servicemen during World War One, World War Two and the nation well beyond.

Modern Day – Thermal Undergarments

Since 2010, men and women of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) have been wearing thermal wear from Queensland company, Merino Country.

The government turned to Merino Country for woollen thermals when they learned of the fabric’s improved warming, cooling and durability features.

The military contracts put the company to the test in the research and development phase. They were asked to create one-off items including a beanie that was specifically designed to be worn under combat helmets.

Merino Country has since provided 130,000 thermals, including shirts and “helmet head” beanies for the ADF.

The most popular item, however, remains a thermal T-shirt developed for the ADF that eliminates chafing.

Kane McKay

An Australian soldier wears a sheepskin vest in the trenches of the Western Front during WW1, date unknown. Photo: Australian War Memorial

First World War slouch hat with wool puggaree and rising Sun badge. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

An advertisement in the Sydney Mail, 1916, appealing for sheepskin vests. Photo: Mortel’s Sheepskin Factory.